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"Bison Sunset" is one of Jim Brandenburg's 43 photograps on display through December at the Bell Museum.
Splendor in the grass
The prairie springs to life in Bell Museum exhibit of Jim Brandenburg photos
By Deane Morrison
The sun has all but set on the great Minnesota prairie. Once stretching over a broad expanse of the western part of the state, native prairie is now reduced to a few island preserves.
But renowned nature photographer Jim Brandenburg is doing all he
can to bring it back. In his exhibit Touch the Sky: Prairie Photographs by
Jim Brandenburg, at the University's Bell Museum, Brandenburg
shares 43 photographs of prairie life, from thundering buffalo to
delicate dove eggs, that he hopes will kindle a renewed
appreciation for an ecosystem that has been plowed and paved into
near-extinction. A University graduate, Brandenburg has donated
nature photography to the University's "Even Mother Nature Loves
Maroon and Gold" poster series. In March he received an honorary
Doctor of Science degree from the University. The first photo that
greets a visitor to "Touch the Sky" is a field beneath a white
cloud shaped unmistakably like a dove. The site is Brandenburg's
birthplace, and he took the photo the day after his father's burial
a few miles away. "My grandfather Henry Brandenburg helped plow the
prairie. Four generations later, I'm trying to preserve it," muses
Brandenburg. On the back wall, almost side by side, hang pictures
of what may be the most maligned prairie creature and one of the
most beloved. The prairie rattlesnake faces the camera, its long
forked tongue probing the air for scents. The snake had been
warming itself on a stretch of road when Brandenburg happened by.
Not taking kindly to his presence, it struck at his camera lens and
spattered venom all over it. In contrast, the picture of two bison,
taken at least 25 years ago, is the soul of serenity; the beasts
seem as oblivious to the camera as to the blizzard that has frosted
them a shaggy white. In Brandenburg's personal favorite, the viewer
looks down on a herd of buffalo rushing through a sea of fog. The
fog is condensed water vapor given off by the buffalo themselves,
after running for a long time in cold weather. Another
bison-related shot shows a "bison rub," a rock worn smooth about
three feet above the ground by 10,000 years of bison rubbing
against it. "Scientists used to say the rock had been worn by the
wind. But then why would it be just at this one height [three
feet]?" Brandenburg comments. Forces of nature are starkly present
throughout the exhibit. From the sun dogs (virtual suns caused by
light refraction in atmospheric ice crystals) to the prairie fires
to the lightning storms, Brandenburg captures the beauty that
sweeps across prairies unhindered by mountains or hidden by trees.
The openness of the prairie also contributes to its vulnerability.
Even the predatory ferruginous hawk must feed its young on the
ground, nesting trees being too scarce. Or note how the long,
curved blades of cordgrass drape protectively around the eggs in a
mourning dove nest, shielding them from the eyes of predators.
Brandenburg praises the state of Minnesota for its work to restore
prairies and University researchers for their studies, notably at
Cedar Creek Natural History Area, of prairie grasses. Long ago
Brandenburg worked with Ed Cushing, a University professor of
ecology, evolution and behavior, as he cataloged prairie life. "I'd
like to have done that," says Brandenburg, who founded the
Brandenburg Prairie Foundation to restore and expand prairie in
southwestern Minnesota. He chose photography instead of science,
but sees his career and the exhibit as a way to help accomplish the
same goals. "I hope people will have a new appreciation for the
prairie and what we can do to preserve it," he says about the
exhibit. "Minnesota is a great place. I'm trying to give something
back to it." The exhibit will run through Dec. 31. Read
more about the exhibit.
Prairie son: Noted wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg protects the land of his youth